Dedicated to the poet's mother, Naomi Ginsberg, the poem is a narration and a lament arising from Ginsberg's memories, three years after Naomi's death, of her life and of his life with her. This long poem is subdivided into 5 sections that address the dead woman directly.

The highly poetic Part I is a reflection on death, life ["all the accumulations of life, that wear us out" (p. 11)], mortality, the link between the dead and the living, the great unknown that lies beyond death--not in the abstract, but in the signs and symbols of Naomi's life/death and in the issues that remain for her son: "Now I've got to cut through--to talk to you / --as I didn't when you had a mouth." (p. 11)

Part II is a long narration of Naomi's life story, especially the history of her mental illness and of the role it imposed on Ginsberg himself. Ginsberg "was only 12" when he brought his mother to what was intended as a rest cure; instead, she became psychotic and was hospitalized, leaving Ginsberg with an everlasting sense of guilt. Separated from her husband, Naomi spent years of paranoia in chaos and institutionalization; son Allen vacillated between pity, disgust, escape in travel, and (homo)sexual exploration.

At the last meeting with his mother, in a mental hospital, she didn't recognize him. While living in San Francisco, two days after Naomi died, he received a letter from her: "Strange Prophesies anew! She wrote--'The key is in / the window, the key is in the sunlight at the window--I have / the key--Get married Allen don't take drugs . . . .' " (p. 31)

These passages give a vivid sense of mental disease and its impact on the family. Ginsberg is not self-pitying or self-indulgent in his description of the illness that laid siege to his mother's life and which so strongly influenced his own life for years. Modestly, he inserts: "I was in bughouse that year 8 months--my own visions unmentioned in this here Lament--" (p. 25)

The brief "Hymnn," is a blessing: "Blessed be you Naomi in Hospitals! Blessed be you Naomi in solitude! Blest be your triumph! . . . Blest be your last year's loneliness!" Part III (one page long) is a short recapitulation of Naomi's life, and uses her own cryptic words to try to make sense out of her life as well as of all life and death: "But that the key should be left behind--at the window . . . to the living . . . that can . . . look back see / Creation glistening backwards to the same grave . . . ." (p. 33)

Part IV, a chant, reaches beyond the personal to social history: "O mother / what have I left out"; (p. 34) "with your eyes of shock / with your eyes of lobotomy; " "farewell / with Communist party and a broken stocking"; "with your eyes of Czechoslovakia attacked by robots . . . ." (p. 35) Ending with the short part V, Ginsberg cries out to the shrieking crows circling in the sky above His mother's grave, "Lord Lord O Grinder of giant Beyonds my voice in a boundless / field in Sheol" (p.36) [Sheol is a Hebrew word meaning "the abode of death."]


Unlike the Hebrew Kaddish, which is a prescribed prayer for [all] the dead, Ginsberg's Kaddish is intensely personal and individualistic. It is an attempt to understand his mother's tragic life, to pay homage, to expiate his feelings of guilt; but it is also a poetic rumination on the nature of human existence, with many original and beautiful passages. The poem epitomizes the use of memory and narrative to gain meaning--to name the unnamable. Through memory Ginsberg conflates the past, present, and future: "Dreaming back thru life, Your time--and mine accelerating / toward Apocalypse." (p. 7)

Memory is fed by a strong sense of place and the geographic continuity of generations, as Ginsberg evokes the neighborhoods of New York City, where he himself lived (at times) and died. As he re-treads the streets where his immigrant mother grew up, he wonders, what was his mother struggling toward then?--"Toward education marriage nervous breakdown, operation, / teaching school, and learning to be mad, in a dream-- / what is this life?" (p. 8) Perhaps generational continuity of place is necessary to allow the metaphysical integration that Ginsberg seeks; perhaps synthesis is much more difficult in today's American mobile culture in which the generations are scattered and discontinuities abound.


Kaddish and his earlier poem, "Howl," established Allen Ginsberg as a major figure in the "Beat Generation" of writers.

Primary Source

Kaddish and Other Poems, 1958-1960


City Lights

Place Published

San Francisco



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